Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Textbooks’ Silence about Ethnic Issues Threatens Russia’s Future

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 19 – The failure of Russian textbooks to discuss openly and honestly the country’s nationality problems, a shortcoming some attempt to justify by saying they do not want to make these difficulties greater, is in fact offending all the groups involved and making their life together in the future more problematic.
In an essay posted on yesterday, Moscow commentator and human rights activist Boris Sokolov argues that the recent discussion of the failures of textbooks in Russia to talk about anti-Semitism and the holocaust is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem (
Indeed, after discussing both the findings of the earlier review and his own observations on other issues, Sokolov argues that it is clear that Russian historians “have not yet recognized that the most secure thing is to write the entire truth in textbooks, for more than anything else, silence and lies antagonize people of any nationality.”
A week ago, the Russian Academy of Sciences released a report on the treatment of Jewish issues in Russian textbooks, a report that attracted attention because it called attention to the systematic effort of the authors of these books to minimize the amount of anti-Semitism in Russia’s past (
One textbook, for example, insisted that “pogroms were not directed against the representatives of any particular concrete nation.” Another downplayed the Holocaust, never providing an overall figure of its victims or describing the systematic destruction of European Jewry by the Nazis.
And yet a third, although it mentioned Babiy Yar, did not specify that this is where the Nazis killed so many Jews but rather as the place in Ukraine where “the occupiers destroyed approximately 100,000 Soviet citizens,” with no nationality or religion given.
But it is not only the Jews who have had their history suppressed or distorted in recent Russian textbooks, Sokolov says. The Tatars are presented “not simply as bloodthirsty wildmen but even as cannibals” in medieval times, and the Balts are recalled only when they declared their independence and then were retaken by Moscow.
In general, however, they like all the other non-Russians of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union are passed over in silence or mentioned only briefly in passing, almost as if these people did not exist.
The reasons for this, Sokolov argues, are not far to seek: “Neither the government not he majority of Russian historians up to the present can figure out how they are to assesss the nationality question and nationality policy of the Russian Empire and the USSR>”
“Was tsarist history one of ‘a prisonhouse of peoples’ and was the Soviet Union a genuine federation?” These are questions, Sokolov suggests that the authors of today’s textbooks do not want to pose because it is unclear just what those at the top of the power vertical want them to say.
“Putin’s power vertical,” Sokolov continues, has in fact destroyed the federation in Russia, but at the same time, the Kremlin has still not realized the idea of dividing the country into gubernia, thus allowing the national republics, albeit with appointed presidents, to continue to exist.”
And today’s Kremlin has not yet decided how it should behave toward the “millions of migrants” in Russia’s cities. Consequently, “if you write about the deportation of the peoples of the Caucasus during the Caucasus or Great Fatherland wars, you are as it were justifying separatism.”
“If you write about the policy of russification and the oppression of Polish, Ukrainians and other languages, you are supporting their claims against Russia.” And “if you use the term ‘Tatar-Mongol yoke,’ then you are offending the Tatars and so on and on.”
Not surprisingly, Sokolov concludes, those who write the textbooks find it easier and safer to say nothing rather than risk falling afoul of one or another power or group. But their silence, he suggests, is making the situation worse, training yet another generation to ignore the facts and invent myths about their own group and others.

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